The Leveraging Agriculture for Nutrition in South Asia (LANSA), an international research partnership, has produced a number of important policy papers/briefs relating to agriculture and nutrition nexus based on researches in four countries of South Asia (SA) - Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Even with higher economic growth and reduction in poverty, the disconcerting dimension in nutritional outcomes -child and maternal under-nutrition - pales in performance. The SA countries are also subject to diverse forms of micronutrient deficiencies eating into the vitals of child growth. Both of these are being labelled as the South Asian Enigma.
Eradication of under-nutrition is extremely difficult and requires a politically inspired dedicated effort to alleviate child under-nutrition. Despite good agricultural growth and so-called self-sufficiency in food grains, South Asia accounts for 40 per cent of the world's undernourished children. Bangladesh performs precariously as far as nutrition is concerned, as shown by the table, on the heels of a major breakthrough in food grain production.
There is a saying: "Search the goods where the boat has sunk." The solution seemingly lies in agriculture - both in terms of volume as well as varieties of production. Agricultural growth, by enabling farming households to grow more/better food for self-consumption, and opening opportunities for employment, can contribute importantly to this process.
South Asian agriculture and allied sectors can play a pivotal role in providing food, livelihoods, and income for a majority of poor/rural population. For example, as in Bangladesh, in the face of dwindling share of agricultural sector to GDP (roughly one-fifths), nearly half of the workforce are still employed in agriculture; agriculture fuels rapid growth of non-farm sector. Nevertheless, as researchers argue, the combination of agricultural production and socio-cultural norms lead to harmful linkages with nutrition, and affect maternal health and child care practices. The recent brief from the LANSA, paraphrased below, sets out the conceptual starting points for research on gender-agriculture pathways to improve nutritional outcomes.
PATHWAY 1 - AGRICULTURE AS A SOURCE OF FOOD: Researches have it that farm assets, interventions, crop diversification, homestead food production, and livestock ownership have a positive impact on dietary diversification and calorie intake, while land fragmentation and landlessness contribute negatively. The gender nature of asset distribution, differential access to assets and agricultural self-employment are not a focus of the research.
PATHWAY 2 & 3 - AGRICULTURE AS A SOURCE OF INCOME: No clear link between the contribution of agricultural incomes to poor households and their nutritional choices is evident. Research has found that non-food expenditure often leads to better absorption of food and expending on non-rice foods reduces stunting in children. Patterns of gender decision-making over food and non-food expenditures, however, vary widely but evidence is lacking.
PATHWAY 4 - POLICY AND PRICES AFFECTING FOOD CONSUMPTION: There is a strong correlation between food prices and its impact on consumption: the higher is the price, lower is consumption. However, studies examining the impact of trade liberalisation conclude that despite increase in prices of commodities relevant for nutrition, the impact of price-rise did not yield adverse results on child nutrition, or on the calorie intake among the self-employed in agriculture.
PATHWAY 5 - WOMEN IN AGRICULTURE: While there is no direct evidence on women's decision-making and resource allocation in agricultural households, several studies note that households with better nutritional status are those where women exercise autonomy, hold assets or have decision-making power.
PATHWAY 6 - MATERNAL EMPLOYMENT: Research suggests that economic recession and income volatility force female labour participation in agriculture having a detrimental effect on child care and health. The children of mothers working on farms are more prone to diseases and are less likely to be treated during peak agricultural seasons. Research concludes that poor child care practices are neither more prevalent nor more important in agricultural households when compared to non-agricultural households in similar situations.
PATHWAY 7- MATERNAL NUTRITION AND HEALTH STATUS: Research has focused on relationship between women's employment in agriculture, women's energy expenditure and their nutritional and health outcomes. Seasonality was found to affect maternal activity and in turn influence the birth weight. Environmental toxins present in agriculture were found to affect nutrition. These aspects are in critical need of further study.
On an empirical plane, it has been observed that the major determinants of food production and consumption are farm sizes, irrigation and livestock that arguably deliver better diets and incomes. Information on gender-related pathways is fuzzy and incomplete. It is mainly because of the lack of time and data thus pointing to further research in this field. Particularly in Bangladesh, there is a serious dearth of quality information on the trade-off between women's engagement in economic activities and nutritional outcomes/child care.
Bangladesh has apparently succeeded in attaining self-sufficiency in food grains but possibly neglecting nutritional outcomes. While the scope for agricultural policies to influence nutrition exists, the frontier in agriculture-nutrition research needs to be broadened to take on, inter alia, gender dynamics within and across societies. Policymakers of Bangladesh perhaps could do well by drawing upon LANSA research that has sought to contribute to bridging this knowledge gap. By and large, advances in this field require both political will and dynamic interdisciplinary academic collaborations. Awareness about nutrition seems to be running like the hare but actions to follow moving like tortoise - signalling a significant gap between the cup and the lip. The sooner we narrow the gap, the better it is for a 'healthy' Bangladesh.
The writer is a former Professor of Economics at Jahangirnaagr University.